The Sense of Painting

The post below was penned by artist Peter Kline. For more information about Peter and his beautiful artwork, please visit: (All images are of Peter Kline’s paintings.)

“Painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through. Another name for local color is carnation. Carnation is the great challenge posed by those millions of bodies in paintings: not incarnation, where Spirit infuses the body, but carnation plain and simple, referring to the vibration, color, frequency, and nuance of a place, of an event of existence.” – Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus

To Cynthia, for offering this space on her blog: thank you!

What I’d like to do here is try to make some sense of my own practice as a painter by thinking along with Jean-Luc Nancy.

At the heart of Nancy’s thought is a thinking of sense. Rather than truth or meaning, Nancy prefers to speak of sense. We don’t know the truth of the world so much as we sense the world. We make sense of the world. We touch it, and we are touched by it.

Sense, for Nancy, is always a form of touching. There is no sense, no meaning, no truth, without touch. This is simply to say that there is no sense without relation, without being-with.

The sense of a work of art, like the sense of anything else, arises only from the way it touches and is touched, from the way it engages one or multiple senses. A painting or drawing, for instance, asks to be touched by the viewer’s sight or vision. Nancy writes:

Vision…glides along swerves and follows along departures. It is a touching that does not absorb but moves along lines and recesses, inscribing and exscribing the body.[1]

The sense of a painting is found not only, or even primarily, in the apprehension of its finished form. The sense of a painting is always per-formed in the contact between the painting as skin and the vision that touches it and is touched by it. Eyes glide along curves and angles and feel out their sense. They follow formations and deformations, fissures, borders, and gaps. They leap between colors and get lost in shades.

Painting, no less than music, even if differently, unfolds in time, as the movement, the sense, of bodies in space.

Nancy’s philosophical and religious thought traces and performs the deconstruction of principled form that opens onto the touching of sense. What is possible on the other side of the death of metaphysical reason? Touching sense, Nancy answers, touching the infinite sense of the world, its being-with, that has no principle, no necessary form, only its own infinite possibility.

The self-deconstruction of Christianity is paradigmatic here, for Nancy. At the heart of Christianity is a body, specifically a body that calls attention to itself, absolutely: Here is my body. The sense of Christianity is the sense, the touch, of this body. Christianity proclaims nothing else, for Nancy, than the absolute “here” of the body. In doing so it also proclaims the absence of any hierarchical principle that would form the world from beyond, from elsewhere. Sense is absolutely here, not elsewhere, in and as the body that touches and is touched.

Nancy titles one of his chapters in his book, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, “There Is No Sense of Sense: That Is Worthy of Adoration.” There is no grounding principle that is worthy of adoration. Monotheism in its radically deconstructive gesture proclaims “the gods,” the principles that structure the world, to be nothing but idols. There is no grounding principle. The sense of the world is its opening to what exceeds any and all principle. This “what” is not any “thing,” no old or new god, but only the movement of the world’s own opening, its being-with itself as an opening.

Now that is worthy of adoration. The world comes from and rests on nothing. We are here, absolutely here, to adore this, to touch the opening that without principle forms at and as the heart of the world.

The self-deconstruction of painting over the past several centuries has followed this same movement. On the cover of the English translation of Nancy’s book Adoration, there is a reproduction of a painting by the French painter Simon Hantaï. Hantaï developed a method of painting in which the canvas is scrunched and folded up into itself, painted along its folds, ridges, and recesses, and then unfolded to reveal the unpredictable form of the painting. Hantaï lets the canvas touch itself. He lets it touch and be touched. The principled form of the canvas gives way to an unprincipled touching, a being-with of the painting with itself that is not a closure into itself but an opening onto infinite sense.

What is it that I do when I paint? Above all, I touch, I sense. I play with the infinite possibilities of sense. I let paint touch itself. I touch paint. I let paint touch me. Often I abandon my tools—principled instruments—and use my hands and fingers directly on the canvas or the wood or the paper. Or I use my tools in excess of their intended purpose. I touch them and let them touch differently, without principle.

My inspirations as a painter, those I adore, are painters who abandon themselves to the unprincipled sense of painting. Above all, for me, Cy Twombly:

As far as painting goes there’s enormous—probably more than with a lot of people—freedom…It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.[2]

And Jean-Michel Basquiat:

I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist. Or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.[3]

And Dorothea Tanning:

By the time I stood in front of this big white canvas, the game of prisms had taken me over. I don’t even know if it was a game anymore. It seemed so desperate, sometimes. It carried me away—so far that I didn’t even have to choose what would be there—I just dived in, and among the forms that came out were these things, there, presiding like friends at a picnic.[4]

To paint is to touch is to sense is to feel the opening of the world right here. Painters play with this opening. We try to sense it, to touch it, to let it touch us. It is an opening more intimate to the world than the world is to itself. It is this infinite dis-enclosure, like canvas as skin exposed to painter as lover, that forms, without measure, the gift of the world—that is worthy of adoration.

Peter Kline: [email protected]


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, p. 45.




Book Plug: Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. The Legacy of a Christian Platonism.

Augustines Invention of the Inner SelfThe “book plug” below was written by Dr. Gary R. Brown, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Dallas. Many thanks to Gary for his contribution.

Is Augustine’s Invention Illusory?

In Phillip Cary’s little book, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self[1], we have that rare thing, an elegant, clear, and significant study of an overlooked but nonetheless important topic. But can the inner self, so familiar and intimately a part of us moderns, be called an invention? Cary himself asks this question in the introduction, where he defends his minor disagreement with Saint Augustine by rejecting the reality of this invented inner self—hence Cary does not call it a discovery—a disagreement he describes as placing him in a better position to unfold from Platonist sources an accurate genesis of Augustine’s invention. By defining his authorial position as a Christian but not Platonist, Cary indicates the complications of explicating Augustine’s view, for the first Church fathers and earliest interpreters of the bible used Platonic concepts, which therefore cannot be historically separated from Christianity. Yet Cary’s rejection of Platonism neither dampens his understanding of Platonism’s influence on Augustine nor aligns Cary with the hackneyed Christian view of worldly pagans. Cary claims, rather, that Platonism is more spiritual than Christianity in that “it is more resolutely focused on the [immortality of] the soul and its relation to eternity,” as opposed to “Christianity’s proclamation of the resurrection of the dead.” Cary further opposes this-world Christological fleshliness to Platonic otherworldliness and asks “why should we want to turn to our inner selves if God is to be found in something external, the flesh of Christ?” Despite Cary’s confession of faith (perhaps differing also from Aquinas), he argues that he is best able to defend the actual unfolding of Augustine’s thought. He writes, he tells us, not only for specialists in Augustine, but for those concerned with philosophical and intellectual history and for those in theology and history of Christianity.

The core of the book is, of course, the etiology of Augustine’s positing of the inner self. The topic is especially timely for those who follow Martin Heidegger’s intense efforts to undermine the subjectivity of this inner self in its modern Cartesian reformulation. If we wonder what is at stake in Heidegger’s war on the closeted inner self, this beloved staple of modernity, Cary’s insightful study of its invention by Augustine from Christian, but mostly Platonist, sources is made to order. Charles Taylor has claimed in Sources of the Self that “On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine.” Augustine, Taylor argues, interiorizes Plato’s intellectual understanding of the soul into an immediately present inward self, so that the universe becomes the external realization of God’s order that can be held in rational inwardness. This, Cary argues, is precisely Augustine’s invention. The relevance of Cary’s book is indirectly made even clearer by Ryan Coyne’s recent, Heidegger’s Confessions (2015), named for Heidegger’s repeated revisiting of Augustine’s Confessions as he refined his notions of Dasein and Sein, mainly in the early 1920’s, then again in 1930-1, and again in his 1946 “Letter on Humanism.”

Clearly, Cary’s book will plunge the thoughts of those interested in the basic questions, “what is man?” How should she live?” into an insightful ferment.


[1] Cary, Philip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Romare Bearden: On Re-imaging and (Re)imagining Black Life and the Unified Fragments of “Three Folk Musicians”

Like many African American artists of his day, Romare Bearden created artworks birthed and nurtured in struggle—a struggle not only for recognition and respect, but also a struggle to break the bonds of racialized stereotypes. Bearden’s complex understanding of the individual and the community and the artist and the art historical tradition plays an important role in the development of his own artistic style and social identity as well as his re-imaging of black life in America.

R. Bearden, "Three Folk Musicians," 1967Critical theorists, philosophers of race, and novelists have analyzed and depicted the experiences of black people in racialized contexts as an ongoing experience of absence. That is, to be black in a white world is to be rendered invisible and muted—to be treated socially and politically as if you did not exist or did not exist as a human being worthy of respect, civic rights, and mutual recognition. Conversely, theorists have analyzed blackness as an over-determined, fixed presence. In this understanding, the black body’s presence is amplified in public spaces, perceived in advance as dangerous, criminal, sexually deviant. Under this (white) lens, black bodies must be constantly surveilled, hemmed in, monitored, and segregated. Either way, blackness is scripted by the white other and in ways that blacks find demeaning, false, and in need of re-formation and re-narration.

One encounters this type of personal and communal identity re-narration in the works of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Aime Césaire, Franz Fanon, W. E. B. Dubois, and many others. The quest to find one’s (black) voice involves an intertextual performativity. That is, the subjugated writer or artist engages the dominant tradition through serious study of its tropes, metaphors, stylistic nuances, and exemplary figures. While the black artist appreciates and admires the renowned works of the dominant tradition, the goal is not mere imitation or assimilation; rather, the black artist seeks to affirm the value and beauty of black difference. Given that the black artist is creating from a subaltern position, her works not only proclaim the significance of black difference, but they also challenge and seek to expand and even overturn both the society’s and the (in this case, art) tradition’s accepted discourses, values, and practices. Artist Aaron Douglas, a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, and poet Aime Césaire, one of the founders of the Négritude movement intentionally drew from African sources and inspirations in order to insert black difference into the prevailing artistic discourses and practices. By fashioning new aesthetic forms, styles, and ways of expressing black culture and history, these artists helped to dismantle negative and demeaning images of blacks as uncivilized, lacking in culture and intellectual acuity, and mere “entertainers” for whites (rather than serious artists).

Like the artists mentioned above, Bearden too chose to foreground black difference in his artistic creations. In his artworks we encounter European stylistic influences infused with symbols, rituals, and mythic elements associated with African American life in both its Southern and Northern expressions. The resulting style is clearly modern but manifests a distinctively black-modern identity. For example, in his 1967 painting, Three Folk Musicians, Beardon combines cubist formal elements with his own collage technique. The content of the painting focuses on three African American folk musicians adorned in brightly colored clothing—clothing that unites both black rural and urban life as symbolized by the figures donning both overalls and berets. The musician on the left and the one in the center are pictured with guitars, and the musician on the right—the one wearing overalls—is holding a banjo, an instrument believed to have been introduced to America via the slave trade. Many of the musicians facial features and parts of their hands have been cut out and reconfigured from various previously existing pictures taken from popular magazines and other sources. Not only does Bearden fuse together different aspects of black life and history, but he also presents a complex view of social construction. That is, our individual lives are both constituted by others—depicted visually in the artwork through the collage assemblage of various body parts of others forming the bodies of each individual musician—and (re)formed through the artist’s creative fashioning of him- or herself in relation to others. In his use of symbols of African American life and history—the overalls signifying life in the rural South, the beret signifying urban life in the North (the beret was a popular fashion trend during the Harlem Renaissance), the banjo, and the emphasis on creative activity via music-making—Bearden subverted white discourses demeaning black life and culture and presented black difference as vibrant, creative, complex, and worthy of respect. As Glazer puts it, “in Three Folk Musicians, Bearden seems to have defined his artistic identity in exclusively black terms, emphasizing the difference and distinction—in short, the presence—of black creativity.”[1] By bringing fragments together to form a unified work, Bearden shows art’s power to create a world, to bring some sense of wholeness to fragmentation (even if the wholeness is temporary and open to change).


[1] Lee Stephens Glazer, “Signifying Identity: Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s Projections,” Art Bulletin 76 (1994): 411–426, here 413.

*The image of Bearden’s, “Three Folk Musicians,” 1967 (Photographs © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA, New York) is taken from the following website:

Book Plug: Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other by Monica Vilhauer

Gadamer's Ethics of PlayGiven my own research interests in the work of Hans-George Gadamer, it has been a pleasure to read Monica Vilhauer’s recent book, Gadamer’s Ethics of Play. Hermeneutics and the Other. The book is divided into four parts: (1) Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Problem, (2) Gadamer’s Concept of Play: Re-Conceiving the Process of Understanding, (3) The Ethical Dimensions of Play, and (4) When Ethical Conditions are Lacking.

In the present mini-review, I focus on Vilhauer’s claims in Chapter 5, “The Ethical Conditions of Dialogic Play: Between I and Thou.” Having convincingly argued that Gadamer’s notion of play is central not only to his reflections on art’s dynamic ontology, but also is central to his understanding of philosophical hermeneutics, Vilhauer then highlights the dialogical and ethical dimension of Gadamer’s concept of play. As Vilhauer explains, the “play-process of understanding”—whether understanding artworks, texts or other people—shows itself “to be a process of communication that occurs between I and Thou” in what one might call “dialogic play” (75). In other words, with the recognition that the play movement of understanding is dialogical—not monological—an ethical dimension of play emerges. “It now becomes apparent that the dynamic event of play in which understanding occurs relies on a particular kind of relation between I and Thou. Hermeneutic experience is not the experience of some object, but of the articulation of some other human being” (75). Of course for Gadamer, a text and a work of art takes on a life of its own and functions as a dialogue partner or “other.” Thus, whether or not the author or artist is living, the text or work still “speaks.” Given the dialogical character of hermeneutical experience, Vilhauer analyses what kind of relationship between an I and Thou is required for a shared understanding about some subject matter to occur. She begins by sketching Gadamer’s three types of I/Thou relationships, viz., (1) a scientific, (2) a psychological, and (3) an “open” approach to the other. The first two ways of engaging the other do not result in a genuine dialogue; the third way, however, makes possible a true engagement with the other wherein shared understanding becomes possible. In addition, in an “open” approach to the other, various ethical conditions are present such as mutual respect, a shared commitment to seek understanding (if possible), and a willingness to learn from (and be challenged by) one another for the purpose of individual and communal growth. Below I highlight some of the salient points in Vilhauer’s description of each type of I/Thou relationship.

In the scientific approach to the other, the Thou is treated as an object or “thing,” whose characteristics are “objectively” analyzed and categorized and its future behavior made more “predictable.” In short, the I’s relational stance toward Thou-as-object is one of distance and mastery; the Thou is neither respected nor listened to as a genuine dialogue partner with something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Vilhauer gives the example of a doctor/patient relationship where the doctor qua expert treats the patient more as an object of study upon which various tests must be performed than a human being with cares, concerns, and experiences that ought to be consulted in the process of reaching a mutual diagnosis and treatment plan. Here the other is disrespected and his or her dignity devalued. Gadamer himself draws upon the Kantian moral tradition and highlights how treating the other as an object instrumentalizes the other. “From the moral point of view this orientation toward the Thou is purely self-regarding and contradicts the moral definition of man. As we know, in interpreting the categorical imperative Kant said, inter alia, that the other should never be used as a means but always as an end in himself” (TM, 358).

In the psychological approach to the other, the other becomes a “psychological thing.” That is, the other is acknowledged as one who makes meaningful statements; however, the other merely expresses his or her particular subjective experience, attitude, or personal point of view. The relationship between “I” and “Thou” is again one of mastery and control, as the “I” is the superior who claims to have a special expertise enabling him/her to properly understand the Thou. Here the other is allowed to speak, but the way in which the “I” listens to the “Thou” is highly problematic. As Vilhauer explains, [t]he ‘I’ in this scenario does not listen to what the other has to say as a ‘claim to truth,’ but as a reflection of the other’s ‘self.’ The ‘I’ does not recognize the ‘Thou’ as a being that has something meaningful to say about the way the world is, about the truth of things, but only as a being that is capable of expressing the way he ‘feels,’ or the way he sees things as a result of his personal life history” (79). Gadamer describes this mode of “knowing” the other in advance as both a denial of the validity of the other’s claims and as a way “to keep the other person’s claim at a distance” (TM, 360). In other words, the “I” allows the other to present his or her perspective but really has no interest in what the other has to say. Before the conversation is even underway, the “I” sees his view as superior, as he is convinced that he possesses some special insight or knowledge allowing him to grasp the other more clearly than the other understands himself. Once the “Thou” is placed in the “I’s” category, stereotype, or other “box,” there is no escaping.

Vilhauer also shows how this approach to the other can be traced to Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics. That is, this second I/Thou relation can be understood as an attempt to get inside the “head” of the other, that is, the other as author of a text. Here one only properly understands the text when one understands the author’s intentions and the particulars of his life. The author is different from me, yet as fellow humans we experience similar feelings; thus, by means of a “sympathetic feeling,” I can understand the author’s intentions and meanings—both known and unknown to him. As Vilhauer observes, “[i]n coming to know the author’s life and mind, in deciphering the inner meaning, root, and origin of his expressions of which he himself is unaware, and in exposing this meaning in a way that makes conscious what was to him unconscious, one comes to know the author better than he knows himself” (80­–1). According to Gadamer, Schleiermacher’s model involves a fundamental misunderstanding of language. That is, Schleiermacher views “language merely as an ‘expressive field’—expressive of the author’s personal life, experience, and perspective” (81). Gadamer, in contrast, understands language as a social reality that exceeds one’s subjective experience. Linguistic statements for Gadamer articulate various subject matters (Sache) and make claims to truth; thus, when we enter a genuine dialogue with the other, our goal is not to understand the other’s subjective, psychological perspective, but the “substantial content” or subject matter that he or she articulates (81).

It is only in the “open” approach to the other that one finds mutual recognition among the dialogue partners and thus the possibility of a genuine dialogue in which understanding might occur. When we comport ourselves to the other in a mode of openness, we are ready and expect to “hear something meaningful and something different from what we already think, know, or have heard others say” (83). In addition, we believe that the other has something to teach us—“something true—about our world and ourselves” that might challenge us to think differently and thus expand our horizons. In this third and highest I/Thou relation, we genuinely put our most cherished assumptions, “prejudices” (i.e. pre-judgments), and Weltanschauung at risk. In this mode of engagement, we treat the other as a human being worthy of dignity and respect—not as a thing we must master or control, nor as an inert object of study whose voice is muted from the start. Or to put it in Gadamer’s own words:

“In human relations the important thing is, as we have seen, to experience the Thou truly as a Thou—i.e., not to overlook his claim but to let him really say something to us. Here is where openness belongs. […] Without such openness to one another there is no genuine human bond” (TM, 361).

My mini-review provides only a glimpse into Vilhauer’s lucid study of the ethical dimensions of Gadamer’s notion of play and by extension his entire hermeneutical project. Those familiar with as well as those new to Gadamer’s work will not only enjoy this book, but will also greatly benefit from Vilhauer’s scholarly labors.

Gadamer on Art’s Emergence, Motion, and Non-Utility (and a Creative “Riff” or Two on Plato and Aristotle)

Malevich "Bureau and Room"In this post I continue my reflections on Gadamer’s analysis of the artwork and its presentations by way of a brief sketch of Gadamer’s relevant work on Plato and Aristotle. If Plato is read as devaluing or demoting art due to its status as third-removed from the truth and a mere copy of the original Idea, then of course Gadamer rejects this view and has no interest in this characterization of mimesis. (In fact, Gadamer argues that Plato himself rejected this view and that his position is articulated in his later dialogues, especially in the Philebus.)[1] For my purposes, I will focus on Gadamer’s creative appropriations of the Platonic-Aristotelian linking of beauty, goodness, and truth in his reflections on art.[2]

In the Philebus, Plato introduces a third category of being, which he calls, “coming into being” (genesis eis ousian; 26d8). This category opposes a dualistic view of reality in which the world of Ideas is separate from the world of appearances. Along similar lines and again in order to stress the unity of being and becoming, Plato speaks of “being that has been” (gegenêmenê ousia; 27b8). With this new category Plato shows how not only in our lived experience but also in the very structure of the world, “we encounter the mixed, and within it we must seek and find the ‘exact.’”[3] Here the “exact” or in Plato’s words, “the exact itself,” is not the “pure” exactness of mathematics but rather the “appropriate” (metrion) discussed in the Statesman, where two arts of measure are introduced and distinguished.[4] Gadamer, in fact, sees the “appropriate” or the “fitting”—the, so to speak, “im-pure” exactness—as an anticipation of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. Both types of measure are crucially important; however, we must discern and respect their difference and resist any push to make mathematical exactness the ultimate measure and model of all knowing and truth. In short, on Gadamer’s reading, if initially Plato advocated dualism, he has himself subverted such a view. In the Philebus, becoming is a coming into being and being comes forth from becoming. Plato and Aristotle have much more in common than Philosophy 101 might lead us to believe.

In fact, Gadamer sees Aristotle’s introduction of the concept of energeia as a mere “step beyond” Plato’s development of this third category of “coming into being.”[5] As Gadamer explains, Aristotle’s understanding and unique employment of energeia is complex and includes the ideas of actuality, reality, and activity. Moreover, energeia shares close conceptual resemblances with Aristotle’s notion of entelecheia (entelechy). The common idea of both terms is that they indicate the unfolding action, not the finished action (ergon). Of course, the activity of energeia and entelecheia involves an unfolding, internal telic movement. Yet Aristotle’s notion of energeia—such as the “pure energeia” of being aware, seeing, and thinking—also designate a movement with no goal outside or beyond the activity itself.[6] Thus, Gadamer suggests that these a-telic activities are characterized by a temporal structural of “tarrying.” That is, the activity of considering or having considering something does not designate a this-after-that sequence but speaks of lingering over something—a being absorbed or immersed in something until it manifests or shows itself. Similarly, with the artwork, as we tarry with it, “it” emerges. This is how we experience art’s truth; we allow ourselves to be absorbed by it, and as we wait and linger, it comes forth and addresses us. As Gadamer explains:

To tarry is not to lose time. Being in the mode of tarrying is like an intensive back-and-forth conversation that is not cut off but lasts until it is ended. The whole of it is a conversation in which for a time one is completely “absorbed in conversation,” and this means one “is completely there in it.”[7]

Given art’s non-practical focus and lack of use-orientation, Gadamer claims that art finds kinship with the ancient notion of theoria.[8] Here Gadamer’s creative appropriations of ancient Greek philosophical concepts are deployed not in order to mute the voice of the other, but rather they enable us to better understand and appreciate a modern conception of art for art’s sake. That is, as we come to understand what Aristotle meant by theoria, techne, physis, and energeia, we have a better grasp of modern art’s claims regarding its absoluteness and non-utility. Rather than associate the making of craftsmanship, whose products serve purposes of utility, with the making of artworks, Gadamer highlights the affinities between art and nature. For example, a work of art, like a flower that comes to bloom, has a developmental history and a process-oriented temporal structure that makes possible its manifestations of sameness in difference. In addition, art like physis shows its life through being in motion; art lives through enactment (Vollzug). Lastly, although in our exploitation of nature via technology, we have by and large lost the sense of wonder at nature’s beauty and its emerging and simply “being-there,” yet even so nature still has the power to surprise and overwhelm us. The same is true of art—even avant-garde art.


[1] See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer Dialogue and Dialectic. Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980,) esp. chapter 6, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic.”

[2] For a friendly yet critical engagement with Gadamer’s position, see Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Bruce Krajewski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 103­–120. On the one hand, Kelly agrees with “Gadamer’s critique of any philosophy of art that considers art to be a lie,” on the other, he rejects the notion that art makes truth claims (ibid.,103). Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[4] See, for example, Plato, Statesman, 284e ff.

[5] Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image,” 210.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 211.

[8] As Gadamer explains, theoria was linked with divine activity and thus involves participation in the highest activity and reality. He also notes that the term originally meant to “participate in a festive act. Thus, it is not merely being a spectator. Rather, it means ‘to be fully there’” (ibid., 213).